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LIVE FROM THE HEADLINES

Bush Administration Fires Back at Critics

Aired July 24, 2003 - 20:16   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: After weeks of being on the defensive, the White House is on the attack. The Bush administration today made a concerted effort to turn back critics who have questioned their case for war in Iraq.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PAUL BREMER, COALITION ADMINISTRATOR: Saddam and his henchmen are finished. They're not coming back.

DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The ability to criticize is one of the great strengths of our democracy, but those who do so have an obligation to answer this question: How could any responsible leader have ignored the Iraqi threat?

DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: The brutal careers of Uday and Qusay Hussein came to an end, sending a very clear signal to the Iraqis that the Hussein family is finished and will not be returning to terrorize them again.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZAHN: So is the White House making an effective case now? I'm joined by three guests this evening: Rick Stengel, national editor for "TIME" magazine; CNN political analyst and "Los Angeles Times" national political correspondent Ron Brownstein. He joins us from Washington tonight. And "USA Today" Washington bureau chief Susan Page also joins us from D.C. -- a lot of chiefs and editors here tonight.

Welcome to you all.

Susan, we introduced you last, so you get to start first tonight.

One could argue that this offensive started last week with the prime minister of Great Britain even arguing the United States' case here. Is it playing with the populace here?

SUSAN PAGE, "USA TODAY": Well, you know they're serious when they have Cheney come out and give a speech. He doesn't give many speeches. He's the biggest gun they got. They finally had something to say today, some good news with the death of Saddam's two sons.

I think they're hoping that enables this message get through in a more powerful way that the war was the right thing to do and let's not get too involved in whether the justification was distorted in the buildup to the war. ZAHN: Ron, let's talk about the timing of this. The vice president had planned this speech, I'm told, made a commitment some six months ago. But you certainly have to wonder whether it was any coincidence that you saw the other players come out tonight, at a time when this 9/11 report was released. What did you make of that timing?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. In fact, you've really seen this all week. Let's not forget, the president himself was out yesterday. Paul Bremer has been all over this week, including the talk shows.

And I agree with you that -- you go back to last week with Tony Blair at the press conference, where the president made essentially the same argument that Dick Cheney made today, which I think they feel is their strongest argument, trying to pull back from the trees and focus on the forest and say, look, the issue here is, did we do the right thing in going to war to remove Saddam Hussein from power? Does that make America more secure? Our answer is yes. And let's focus on that, rather than on the details of who was notified about what in terms of questions of the uranium in Africa.

So that is the consistent message I think you're seeing from the big players here. And it's no coincidence that it's following one after the other.

ZAHN: And, Rick, how much of this, do you think, grows out of their concern about some erosion of poll numbers?

RICK STENGEL, "TIME": Oh, a lot, I think.

ZAHN: All of it?

STENGEL: Yes.

Bush's numbers have been going down kind of steadily. His numbers on trustworthiness have gone down. His general support has gone down. One of the things they really have to worry about is whether perceptions of his competence begin to change, because they don't want to go back to that pre-9/11 doubts about his competence as a leader. But when they see all these mistakes with intelligence, when they see the yellowcake thing creeping in the State of the Union, they start wondering, is this guy up to the task? The White House really does not want voters to think about that.

ZAHN: In order for the strategy to work, how long does it have to be played? It can't be just a one-week effort here.

STENGEL: Forever, I think. Cheney talks about this long twilight war. The war has two sides. The Bush administration has to keep talking about its triumphs and victories. They have to, as Ron said, keep talking about the big picture, rather than the little picture.

This will never go away, because the carping will never go away.

ZAHN: Susan, when you look at the highlights, at least of the part of the 9/11 reports we've been able to see, what is it the administration should be most concerned about tonight, in terms of public perception?

PAGE: I think the administration is most concerned about the perception on reports that the administration was somehow asleep at the switch, that there were signals that they should have picked up on, that the FBI and CIA should have been able to follow up on that might have avoided some of that terrible day on September 11.

The administration -- the American people have been slow to want to point blame at September -- for the September 11 tragedy. But we have this report today. And we have another independent commission now getting going with its work, so that story is not settled. And, in some ways, that has more political potential to be damaging than even the allegations about the distortion of intelligence before the Iraq war.

ZAHN: And let's, too, talk about some of the omissions, Ron, that have been made in this report, the public really not being able to see some very important parts. What should we read into that?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, there is an interesting question here, which is that the -- what you're seeing from Democrats, whether or not they supported the war, is an effort to use the questions about the pre-war intelligence to question Bush's credibility in a way that he really hasn't faced since he's been president and arguably since he entered politics big time a decade ago, when he ran for governor of Texas.

And what you could imagine is this being drafted into that broader indictment, the question of whether they're being truly forthcoming about the issues relating to the Saudis. And, particularly, you have some of the Democrats harping on that, obviously moving very hard to try to make the case, whether -- as I say, whether or not they supported the war -- the administration manipulated the pre-war intelligence and trying to chip away at what has been one of Bush's greatest strengths as he really remerged as a national figure, the sense among the public that he is a straight shooter.

As Rick mentioned, the CNN/"TIME" poll last weekend showed, the percentage of people who say that they can trust Bush, what he tells them, has declined. There is some erosion here. It's not a freefall. It's not a desperate problem yet, but there are some real warning clouds out there for the administration.

ZAHN: Finally, the biggest challenge for the Democrats, Rick, in this environment, particularly those who went along with the war effort and now find themselves being highly critical of the post-war strategy, what's at stake for them?

(CROSSTALK)

STENGEL: Yes.

In fact, our poll showed that most people regarded what the Democrats were saying as just politics. And if I were giving advice to the Democrats, I would say, a falling man who's your opponent, don't stop him while he's falling. I wouldn't say very much at all.

ZAHN: Rick Stengel, Susan Page, Ron Brownstein, thank you for all three of your perspectives this evening.

I really had to be on very good behavior with all these editors in chief.

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